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At Mass General Brigham, women in science and health care are key to success

Dr. Anne Klibanski, president and CEO, says the hospital system’s COVID-19 response is a testament to the power of people working together.

In November 2019, Mass General Brigham president and CEO Dr. Anne Klibanski had just unveiled a five-year strategic plan for her organization, with the goal of creating a truly integrated healthcare system. Just four months later, the pandemic would change the way its member organizations deliver health care together, forcing collaboration never seen before. Since that time, Mass General Brigham has been at the center of the state’s response, caring for more than 65,000 patients infected with COVID-19; running 40 coronavirus-related clinical trials; operating the region’s COVID field hospital, Boston Hope; and supporting the hardest-hit communities with hundreds of thousands of care kits and millions of masks. 

Dr. Anne Klibanski

For Klibanski, the pandemic has been a dramatic testament to the resourcefulness, skill, and compassion of Mass General Brigham’s nearly 80,000 employees. “Working together as a system, we have shown the extraordinary value of the care we provide, our research and teaching, our innovation, and our work with the communities around us,” she says. “This challenging time has brought out the best in people, and I have witnessed this across our entire system every day. There are so many stories of extraordinary work, personal and family sacrifices, innovative thinking, and inspiring accomplishments.”


Women at the front lines of the pandemic response

During Women’s History Month, Klibanski, a neuroendocrine clinician-researcher, has been thinking a lot about the women at Mass General Brigham who have been so critical to the COVID response, including one of the most well-known: Rochelle Walensky, MD. In January, Walensky, the former chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital, became director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, arguably the most public-facing and important job in the country’s pandemic battle. But there have been scores of other women in the organization whose contributions have been invaluable. “At every level and in every type of role, from infection control to operations to patient care, women were central to our COVID response,” says Klibanski. 

Early on in 2020, before the pandemic was even declared, a team across Mass General Brigham was established to help guide the COVID-19 response across the system. In addition to women physicians and infection control experts, the system was privileged to have women operational and nursing leaders playing critical roles. “We were so fortunate to have leaders like Ann Prestipino, MPH, and Julia Sinclair, MBA, leading operations and chief nursing officers Debbie Burke, RN, and Maddy Pearson, RN, guiding and supporting our system’s nurses. These women all provided steady and thoughtful leadership to ensure that we were doing everything we could for not only our patients but our employees as well.” 


Laying a foundation for women in healthcare

Klibanski, who graduated from medical school at a time when women made up only about one-third of medical students (today, more than half of medical students are female) has spent her career supporting and mentoring women in medicine. Earlier in her career, she was instrumental in launching a backup childcare center at Mass General Hospital as well as the Claflin Distinguished Scholar Awards. Given to five women investigators every year, the funding recognizes the difficulty of maintaining research productivity during the child-rearing years and can be used to hire, for example, a graduate student or a postdoc to help in the lab. “When I look at the list of women who have been beneficiaries of the program over the past 25 years— including Dr. Walensky— it is unbelievably gratifying,” says Klibanski. “So many of the beneficiaries are still a part of Mass General Brigham and have been able to make incredible contributions to medicine as well as lead groundbreaking research that is helping not only our patients, but patients around the world.”

Klibanski believes that institutions like Mass General Brigham must reflect the rich diversity of the patients they serve, and that includes gender diversity. “We need people of all backgrounds at the table and in visible leadership roles. When women are truly integrated and at the table, they consistently improve patient care through their innovation, compassion, and commitment. Medicine loses a lot when we don’t fully capture the contributions of women and those from diverse backgrounds.”  


Making women’s success essential 

Mentoring, says Klibanski, is one of the most effective ways to help advance women’s careers. “When you see someone achieving professional goals similar to your own, or perhaps your mentor has been able to create a rich life outside of work, you believe in the possibilities of what you can accomplish.” And conversely, serving as a mentor offers countless rewards. Many of Klibanski’s mentees have gone onto leadership roles, including Karen Miller, MD, who is now chief of the neuroendocrine unit at Mass General Hospital and has written about her experience being mentored by Klibanski. “One of the greatest things you can do is to watch someone you believe in succeed,” says Klibanski. 

Mentoring is crucial to women’s success, but that must be accompanied by institutional support, according to Klibanski. “When organizations support women — whether it’s through tangible programs like generous family leave policies or on-site child care programs, or by establishing a culture that celebrates women and their contributions — it’s sending a clear message: ‘“We value you and you are critical to our collective success.’”


A seasoned trailblazer answers the call 

Jeanette Ives Erickson, RN, is chief nurse emerita at Massachusetts General Hospital. When she retired as chief nursing officer, she had been in the position for more than two decades and helped the hospital through many difficult challenges, including the Boston Marathon bombing. In early 2020, as it was time to open Boston Hope, Boston’s COVID-19 field hospital, Mass General Brigham knew that Ives Erickson had the experience and know-how to help lead the medical oversight for the facility. The hospital went on to care for 700 patients, freeing up critical resources and hospital beds across the city before closing in June of that year. After a few short months, when Mass General Brigham was opening its largest vaccination clinic at Assembly Row in Somerville, Ives Erickson was called upon to once again help lead the operations.

This content was produced by Boston Globe Media's Studio/B in collaboration with the advertiser. The news and editorial departments of The Boston Globe had no role in its production or display.